James Chang, a recent UC Berkeley graduate and current Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board commissioner, knows housing in Berkeley better than most.
Financially independent throughout most of his college years, Chang is someone who has experienced the thick and thin of the arduous, if not obnoxious, adventure of finding housing. He has had to rely on a variety of housing options, including the Berkeley Student Cooperative, where he served as the organization’s vice president of external affairs.
Elected to the Berkeley rent board in November 2014, Chang sees himself as an advocate for student interests on the board, which he sees playing a significant role in their lives.
The Daily Californian recently sat down with Chang to talk about the board, how students can take advantage of it and why housing issues are so dear to his heart.
The Daily Californian: Let’s start with the basics. What is the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, and what does it do?
James Chang: The rent board was approved by the voters through a referendum process about three decades ago, in which the voters approved an elected board that upholds the (city) rent ordinances. These ordinances ensure that landlords cannot evict tenants without just cause, meaning your property owner cannot evict you because he does not like you.
DC: So the board does more than just rent stabilization, doesn’t it?
JC: The whole purpose is to make sure people cannot be evicted without just cause. The rent stabilization aspect of it is that we are here to uphold rent-controlled units that have been rent-controlled before the ’90s. Nevertheless, the rent board can help mitigate other issues with all tenants, but when it comes to rent control, these are the only buildings that it affects. It is also important to note that we serve not just tenants but also landlords. The rent ordinances are meant to be enforced in a way that helps both property owners and tenants.
DC: Are all rental units under your jurisdiction?
JC: All rental units in the city must register with us. With rent-controlled units, we help ensure that landlords respect their own rent ceilings. With units that are not rent-controlled, we cannot force landlords to reduce their rent unless the landlord is not providing adequate and hospitable living conditions, such as proper heating or plumbing.
DC: How can students know if their unit is rent-controlled or not?
JC: Students can go to the rent board website and type in their address to see if their building is rent-controlled. A good proportion of the buildings in Berkeley are rent-controlled.
DC: So the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board seems to provide a considerable amount of services. But why do so few students know about it?
JC: I think one of the reasons why the board is not so well known is because it is pretty confusing for many. Having said that, however, we do try to reach out, and I think we have been very active in the Berkeley community. We go to campus and residential halls and talk to students about their rights whenever we can, but at the end of the day, we are only as capable as our budgets allow.
DC: Why do you think it’s important for students to know their housing rights?
JC: Very simple. As students — as first-time renters — they are the people who are most likely and easily going to be taken advantage of by the landlords.
DC: Fair enough. What advice do you have for students who are currently looking for housing — particularly freshmen who are about to move out of the dorms?
JC: Freshmen need to realize that they are not alone. They also should realize that as a renter, there are plenty of resources at their disposal, including the rent board, which is very accessible. Reach out for help, and know your rights. And ask questions — there is no such thing as a stupid question.
DC: That’s very true. Lastly, do you have any final comments for the readers?
JC: I really believe that everyone deserves affordable and habitable housing. I hope that students will continue to push the university and the city to provide more affordable housing options, like the co-ops, for instance. We have made plenty of progress already towards affordable housing in this city, but we need to do more, as Berkeley remains one of the most expensive areas to live in compared to other university areas.